Composer: Piotr Tchaikovsky
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Director: Fiona Shaw
Production: Deborah Warner
Eugene Onegin: Mariusz Kwiecien
Tatiana: Anna Netrebko
Lenski: Piotr Beczala
I generally pick and choose the performances I attend based on various factors such as works, artists, schedule and location. And sometimes, the stars somehow align and promise the perfect storm of contentment. That's really what I was feeling on Tuesday night on my way to the Met. Composed by the man who made me fall in love with classical music and headlined by a star-studded cast, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin would mark my return to one of my favorite musical haunts after a long opera-deprived stretch, which was broken only last week at BAM with Anna Nicole, The New York City Opera's brightly colored swan song.
Back on the more familiar territory that is the Lincoln Center, the atmosphere was certainly more dignified, and for a while even political. Incensed by the harsh anti-gay law passed in Russia last June, as well as by Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko openly schmoozing up to Vladimir Putin last year, thousands of petitioners had called on The Met to dedicate its season opening gala featuring the most popular opera written by Russia's most famous gay composer to the LGBT community. That did not happen, but Netrebko consequently turned on the diplomatic charm (while Gergiev apparently could not be bothered), Peter Gelb felt compelled to insert a note in the program and some well-mannered protesters were peacefully escorted out of the house. Once order, if not justice, had been restored, the show allegedly went on as planned.
I had loved my first Eugene Onegin at The Met, a few years back, and was very much looking forward to this new version of it. Inspired by a celebrated novel in verse by Pushkin, it is a fairly long opera, with a simple story made of a few dramatic scenes full of big emotions and a serious case of bad timing, all to the sound of beautiful melodies. The perspective of hearing Anna Netrebko finally sing a role seemingly created for her luscious voice in her native language had been setting countless opera lovers' hearts aflutter for months. Two fast-rising Met regulars from Poland, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and tenor Piotr Beczala, who have repeatedly been proving their worth, completed this extremely attractive cast.
The title of the opera may have been Eugene Onegin, but it is highly probable that most eyes and ears stayed solidly focused on Anna Netrebko. And they were well rewarded. Her youthful looks and richly lyrical voice made her a lovely Tatiana, the 17-year-old bookish girl whose deep romantic yearnings were about to become unleashed. For the occasion, the high-energy soprano was at her most demure - She ran across the stage only once! - and while her limited acting skills were not helped by the unfocused direction, her gorgeous singing was often mesmerizing. The eagerly awaited "Letter" aria, during which the shy young woman slowly awakens to feelings of passion, went well. Her truly grand moment, however, happened in the final scene, when she and Mariusz Kwiecien had a final meeting so intensely gripping that I felt violently jolted from the torpor I had been slowly slipping in after two very, very long intermissions. When she sang out "Farewell forever" before resolutely walking away, you definitely knew she would not turn back.
As the bored neighbor causing all the turmoil, Mariusz Kwiecien showed an impressive vocal and physical presence. Laudably not trying to make his boorish character more sympathetic than he is supposed to be, he still behaved honorably when confronting Tatiana about her letter. His Onegin was appropriately insensitive and sometimes cruel, which made the eventual discovery of his human side all the more surprising.
As the ill-fated Lenski, Piotr Beczala had his big moment with a perfectly soaring "Farewell to life" aria, during which his ardent singing thoughtfully conveyed the many emotions of a young man who knows his life is about to be cut short, but who just can't turn away. Sweet and hot-headed, the young poet in love with Olga projected an endearing personality that made his early demise all the more poignant.
The quality of the singing remained extremely high throughout the whole cast. Oksana Volkova, in particular, was full of life as Olga, Tatiana's fun-loving younger sister, and Alexei Tanovitski was a quietly dignified Prince Gremin, the older aristocrat who found love later in life. The chorus was his usually excellent self, especially when adding some welcome touches of Tolstoyan country life.
The rest of the production, however, did not fare so well. Apparently unsure if they wanted to stick to tradition, with a boringly pleasant, but ultimately uninspired, country home, or go a more stylized route, as the minimalist, yet chillingly effective, duel scene seemed to hint at, the original producer, Deborah Warner, and her later substitute, director Fiona Shaw, never succeeded in creating a unified, or even merely consistent, vision. Tatiana stayed up all night writing in a large room that should logically be her bedroom but really is not, unless it is, after all. The huge columns in the ball room during the third act were distracting and, most of all, unnecessary. The ever-present shiny floor looked like an advertisement for a cleaning product and did not contribute anything in any way. Those were just a few of the nonsensical details that eventually added up and stubbornly kept the theatrical experience from being as transporting as the musical one.
In the orchestra pit, Valery Gergiev took the time to let Tchaikovsky's magnificent score leisurely unfold while still powerfully dwelling on the dramatic peaks. The Russian maestro may not always seem to be capable or willing to keep things tightly under control, but he for sure knows how to keep them exciting. Add to that a deep understanding of the composition, and we had all the ingredients for another memorable performance by the consistently outstanding orchestra, which they naturally delivered.
Final verdict: Music: 1. Production: 0.